After my first child was born, one of my most intrusive thoughts was that I didn’t have enough time to pet my cats anymore. I would weep for the cats, worried that they felt they’d lost us now that all our attention went to the new screaming alien in the house. My brother’s girlfriend reassured me that one of the cats was so stupid, there was no way he was capable of feeling the grief I was ascribing to him. But the other cat is smart, I thought, and then I would cry harder.
Three weeks postpartum, I cried and cried as I told my brother that my love for Serafina, the smart cat, was so much easier than my love for the baby. Every time I looked at Serafina, I felt warm, soothing joy. It was like a straight shot of serotonin, reliable and easy every time. When I looked at my child, I felt love, but it was so loaded. The baby represented obligation and worry and loss. The most innocuous memories with my husband, who I was around constantly but missed desperately, were suddenly intensely nostalgic: us testing cocktails at the new place around the corner, us watching four episodes of Chopped in a row, us on family vacation carrying G&Ts to the beach. Now, our days were 24 hours long, no longer split up by times of day or days of the week, but by the time since the last feed/pump/sleep/diaper and the next one. We used to have so much fun together, I cried to him during the first week home. We’ll have fun again, he promised.
I better understand the feeling of loss now. When I had my second child 16 months after my first, I felt a sense of loss for my older kid even though she was right there, poking her sister in the ear as I tried to hold them both. But I’m still struck by the other surprising emotion that hit me after first giving birth, the most dominant one I felt, the one that was lowest on the list of words I’d have associated with sweet bundles of joy: anger.
Giving birth unlocked a rage inside me that I had no idea existed.
My anger was never actually about the baby. Of all the emotions I have felt cursed to struggle with throughout my life, anger was never one of them. Or, more accurately, I always dealt with anger by directing it inward and morphing it into sadness, a much more familiar feeling. But whether it was the postpartum hormone crash, the traumatic birth, or the existential and logistical shock of being responsible for a human being, I was a new mom overcome by fury at basically everyone but my child. And I realized I had no idea what to do with anger.
I became a mother on an impossibly skinny operating table. During my first pregnancy, I had developed severe preeclampsia, a terrifyingly common complication that can affect your blood pressure and organ function. I delivered my baby by C-section at 35 weeks. We heard her cry after they yanked her out—she sounded exactly like Serafina—and they took her away to the NICU because she was early and small. Then my blood pressure spiked, things got scary, and they put me on a 24-hour IV drip to prevent seizures. I couldn’t see the baby until I was off the IV. My husband had to go home because visiting hours were over. Within a few hours of giving birth, I was high as hell on pain medication and alone. I kept waking up and wondering where the baby was.
I had spent most of the last nine months overcome with the anxiety that the baby would never actually exist. She was an IVF pregnancy and the stress and buildup required to even get to a positive pregnancy test left me completely wrecked, convinced that it would never actually happen for us. I didn’t talk to the baby when I was pregnant. After the baby was born, my husband and brother sent me pictures of her from the NICU, the photos blurry because their phones were in plastic bags. I still wasn’t fully convinced she existed.
We were reunited the next night in the dark, dreamlike environment of the NICU. We both spent about a week in the hospital, me getting sicker and mentally replaying every ProPublica maternal mortality story I had read throughout my pregnancy.
In a rage, I thought of all the moms who were already home with their babies while we had to scrub in just to hold ours.
In a rage, I took the elevator with dads who had spent the night in their hospital rooms with their babies and complained about their lack of sleep.
In a rage, I lurched around the maternity floor with slow, agonizing steps—I could barely pick up my legs because I’d gained so much weight from the preeclampsia—passing bouquets of “Congratulations!” balloons, heart racing, feeling like my nerve endings were buzzing and ready for a fight.
In a rage, I went to the hospital’s lactation class, attended exclusively by mothers with relatively huge, seemingly healthy babies in their arms, wearing cute bathrobes and slippers I imagined they brought in their go bags. My go bag was partially packed, at home in our bedroom, and I wore a hospital gown on my front and another one on my back to cover myself. In the class, they told us the recommendations are to not give a bottle or pacifier until breastfeeding is well-established—mine had already had both. The instructor kept looking at me, sitting there like a chump with no baby, and saying apologetically, “This doesn’t really apply to you.”
Everything I’d ever heard about becoming a mother went like this: The minute you see your baby, you are so overcome with love that it makes the rest of your life look like trash in comparison. People use the words “gobsmacked” and “mommy bliss” a lot. I thought it was supposed to be like walking through a door—I’d have the baby, and all my priorities would change. My life would be defined by this person I was willing to die and kill for, right there in the delivery room.
Instead, finally home from the hospital, I couldn’t stop crying and missing the cats. I kept thinking about how, when I got really sick before my daughter was born, I had a pretty strong feeling that, if it came down to it, I didn’t want to die so that she could survive. Between that and my easier love for Serafina, I was positive I wasn’t as good a mother as I always thought I’d be. And I still wasn’t talking to the baby.
It made me even angrier that everyone kept telling me, “It’s okay if you’re having a hard time.” My body, my mind, my relationship, and my sense of self were unrecognizable. I wasn’t sure when I’d ever get to sleep for longer than an hour. Of course I was having a hard time. It’s like if I was in a house on fire and people said, knowingly, “It’s okay if you’re having a hard time.”
At my postpartum checkup, with my husband’s encouragement, I asked my doctor about the constant crying, even though I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through the question without bursting into tears. I love my doctor a lot. I basically felt like he saved me by giving me a C-section when he did. But his response was, “Do you think it’s just the baby blues, or do you think it’s depression?” which reminds me of a line in The Simpsons when Dr. Nick says, “When you were in that coma, did you feel your brain getting damaged?” I wanted him to give me the answer, not ask me for it.
It feels like if you Google postpartum depression, everything asks if you’re thinking about hurting the baby, which made me even angrier. It’s a valid line of questioning, but it made me feel like there was no space between “the ups and downs of mommyhood!” and “are you at immediate risk of poisoning your children?” Terrified and guilty, I admitted to myself that I didn’t know what highs my mom friends were talking about. But I also wasn’t anywhere close to hurting anyone. “Postpartum depression” felt like the only words available to me as a new mom who was struggling, but they didn’t feel right either. I was furious at the lack of choices for how to be depressed.
Within a few weeks, the baby got big enough to start nursing full-time, and my ability to feel joy returned. I never got any kind of mental health diagnosis, and I didn’t pursue one.
Feeling like myself again so rapidly after my baby started really breastfeeding made me suspect that much of my sadness and rage was hormonal. It feels strangely dismissive, even though it shouldn’t. Like a teen rolling her eyes at her parents, my existential despair was mostly hormonal.
I remember exactly where I was the first time I got to walk around and listen to music after having a drink. It was a Grape-O-Rita in a can, about two months postpartum, after seeing a friend. It felt like I had reappeared, for a minute, after being missing.
By then, I was also starting to experience the soaring heights of what it feels like to love your baby. I got to know her, as she grew from a 4-pound ball of needs who couldn’t make eye contact into an actual person with the best smile I’d ever seen in my life. I now know I would enthusiastically die for her. As soon as I got to know her, I started to understand all the annoying things parents say that make you feel like you never knew what love was until this. It’s exhilarating and devastating to know what this kind of love is like.
I started this essay with one newborn on my chest and, a year and a half later, I’m finishing it under a different one—a non-IVF pregnancy that surprised us when my first was 7 months old. Despite everything, we were already in a hurry to have another, and we were stunned and thrilled and giddy, taking pictures of the three positive tests in a row. But just when I had started to feel like I wasn’t missing, I was pregnant again, navigating the hormones and body changes that make me feel like I’ll never remember who I was before having kids.
Everything was so much less intense this time. I had a healthy pregnancy, a healthy birth, and a healthy baby. The first few days were so good that I thought I could avoid the postpartum rage. I thought maybe I had no more sense of self to lose when I wasn’t sure I’d ever completely gotten it back the first time.
But, for me, the postpartum anger was unavoidable. Having a relatively uneventful second birth made me realize, in retrospect, exactly how traumatized the first one left me. All through my first pregnancy, I was bracing for something. I always imagined I’d let that go once the long-wished-for baby finally arrived safely. Instead, in the throes of the postpartum experience for the second time, I oscillated between the absolute euphoria of realizing I would get to fall in love with a new kid and the feeling that with this new life I had gotten a new brain that couldn’t stop bracing for something, no matter how happy I was.
My rage faded about six weeks after both babies were born, which tracks with what other moms have told me about the particularly intense, emotionally raw period that comes immediately postpartum. But the realization that I was capable of feeling it has stayed with me.
I can’t go back to being a person who tries to avoid ever getting mad. But I still haven’t completely learned what to do with the feeling. Now that I have a toddler, I’m looking down the barrel of teaching my own children how to process their emotions while I still sometimes feel completely alienated by my own. I do have some inspiration, though.
Before we had kids, we went on a family vacation with my sisters-in-law and their two little boys. On the first day, one boy didn’t want to get out of the pool for naptime. He went through the range of toddler tools to express his disagreement—yelling, resisting, crying. But then, as his mom wrapped him up in a towel and hugged him, he calmly started repeating, “Mad at Mommy. Mad at Mommy.” She didn’t tell him why he needed to nap, or why he shouldn’t be mad, or why it would be okay. She just told him, “I hear that you’re mad at Mommy. It’s okay to be mad at Mommy.”
Then there’s Fred Rogers. My first baby is named after Mr. Rogers, one of my lifelong heroes for his unparalleled respect for the inner lives of children. There’s a Mr. Rogers song, “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”, which he famously recited in front of Congress in 1969 to save funding for public television. At one point, he says, “And what a good feeling to feel like this / And know that the feeling is really mine.” When I first watched the testimony after having my first child, I realized I’d never conceptualized anger that way: not as a problem to be immediately solved, but as something that it’s okay to just feel.
So, I look at my kid, the kid named for the man who made it his life’s work to create an emotionally literate populace. When she gets mad, I try to remind myself not to be afraid of her feelings. At first, I have the overwhelming urge to shield her from anger and sadness the same way I try to prevent her from falling down. But I see the anger cresting, and I try to let her feel it. “I can see that you’re angry,” I say. I hold her and feel her furious weight against me. I tell her, “It’s really hard to be angry.”